Northern Introduction

Between a rock and a hard place, as we pass in and out of Northern Ireland.

It's important to get some of the political background in order to really understand Northern Ireland. I will attempt to summarise some of the important parts here. I may make some mistakes, but this should be enough to give you the general idea. It is not intended to insult anyone, their political views, or their religion, and I ask that you please view it that way. It is intended as an independent view of a person who would prefer to be classed as 'neither' (see below). If this all bores you, skip to the pictures, but some of them may not make sense without it.

Back in the early days of the British Empire, the entire island of Ireland was a single country, with a traditionally Catholic population of Irish Gaelic Celts. It was - like much of the World - taken over as part of the empire, and became a principal part of the United Kingdom. To speed the takeover, Protestant supporters of William of Orange were imported to colonise Ireland. Most of these were Sottish Gaelic Celts from nearby Scotland, and the largest number remained in the northern part of the island. In 1921, at the end of the Irish War of Independence, the counties with an expected majority population of settlers and their descendants were split into Northern Ireland, with the rest becoming Southern Ireland. In 1922, both of these Irish countries were detatched from the United Kingdom to become part of an independent country called the Irish Free State. Northern Ireland, due to its concentration of settlers and several generations of their descendants, immediately chose to rejoin the United Kingdom instead of remaining in the Irish Free State. The Irish Free State (of which Southern Ireland was now the only member) was then renamed to the Republic of Ireland.

Northern Ireland still has a large number of descendants of both the indigenous Irish (about 44% of the population), and the settlers (about 53%). Each group strongly maintains their own heritage. Descendants of the Irish are nominally termed Catholic, and those of the settlers are nominally termed Protestant. Their individual actual religious beliefs have nothing at all to do with it; often they do claim to follow that religion, however, though not always actively. They will choose names for their children based on that categorisation, with the Protestants using older biblical names, and Catholics using more recent saints' names. This naming makes easy identification of allies and foe, and failing that, a choice of side will be made based on ancestry. It's not about religion. It's about politics.

The term "side" may seem extreme, but this is a country dominated by the political split between the two. Catholics in general (or more correctly; Nationalists) vie for reunification with the Republic of Ireland, and Protestants in general (or more correctly; Unionists) vie for remaining a part of the United Kingdom. Even if a member of one group does not personally agree with the overall view of their group, or does not have any particular view either way, that viewpoint is assumed simply because of their ancestry. For many years, there were battles, later becoming attacks, gang fighting and bombings. This culminated in The Troubles, as each side struggled to make their choice become the dominant one. Though things have settled over the last 11 years, there is still a very strong feeling of segregation and intimidation from both sides.

When getting a job, candidates are required to state if they are Catholic, Protestant or neither. Public services have rules about ensuring that interview panels have at least one representative from each group. Large numbers from each group fanatically support either the Celtic (Catholic) or Rangers (Protestant) football teams, even though both are based in Glasgow in Scotland. Marriages happen mainly within each group - marriages between the two groups are relatively rare, and can cause divides within families. Different parts of each city and town are dedicated to housing members of one group only. Straying into the wrong parts of some towns at the wrong time can have serious consequences. Each side has its own feast days, festivals and parades, used as a way of showing national pride, resulting in what feels like a significant dose of intimidation.

This all makes the question of reunification vs remaining part of the UK, feel like the proverbial stance between a rock and a hard place. Either way a lot of people are offended. It is certainly not an enviable position.